Up to this point, the Capital Ring is way marked to an excellent degree – indeed, the only real problem is when the local retards decide to twist the signs through 90 degrees, but at least the signs are there in the first place. For most of this leg, then, it's a surprise to find that the way markers are conspicuous by their absence, and after being lulled into a sense of security by the preceding ten days, it's a bit of a shock. Luckily, the guidebook for the Ring is almost anal in its description of turning right here and veering left there, so it's easy enough to pick up the trail, and there are still some markers every now and then to make sure you're on the right track.
It's especially surprising that the way markers have gone AWOL, because this leg takes you through some of the most affluent parts of London suburbia (though perhaps that's part of the reason, come to think of it). Things don't start off too well, though, as the Ring sets out from Hendon Park and meanders into Brent Park, a thin strip of chaos along the River Brent. The undergrowth is thick and wild as the path winds between the river and a set of man-made ponds called the Decoy, now home to plenty of ducks and a complete lack of signs to guide you through the winding pathways. Actually, that's not strictly true, as there is a Capital Ring sign at the end of the park, where you turn right to follow the banks of Mutton Brook, but someone has helpfully sprayed white paint over the top of it, so it takes some deciphering.
This sums up this stretch rather well. There's an underpass with walls smothered in illegible graffiti that leads to a grassy park, with the noise of the North Circular Road just to the left, and a choked stream to the right with signs saying 'Polluted Water, Keep OUT' poking out through the undergrowth. On a grey spring day, it's not exactly the most welcoming part of the world, which makes it all the more surprising that it turns into Addison Way, and everything instantly starts to smarten up.
The reason: this is Hampstead Garden Suburb, one of the most affluent parts of London, and it shows. The houses are instantly a step up from most other suburbs on the Ring, and though it might irritate those of us with socialist tendencies, there's no denying that the Ring now treads lightly through some stunning suburbs. The first real taste of this is Northway Gardens, a manicured strip of parkland along the now reinvigorated Mutton Brook, which incorporates yew trees, tennis courts and a surprisingly large number of men wearing skull caps and wide-brimmed black hats. After a quick jaunt through Lyttleton Playing Fields the reason becomes apparent, as the Ring hangs a left past Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, and then the real fun starts, for this is where Hampstead kicks in big time.
The houses along Vivian Way are to die for (well, they are if you like houses that look like large English country cottages, which I do). OK, the hedges are a little too manicured for my taste and you get the feeling that the residents' association is probably judge, jury and executioner round these parts, but the results are wonderful to walk through. Even the mock Tudor frontages are inoffensive (unlike in other, slightly more nouveau parts of the capital), and it's a bit of a shock to arrive at the back of East Finchley tube station and the busy A1000.
Luckily the good times don't end here. After a jaunt through the pleasant Cherry Tree Wood (which is actually a park with the eponymous wood on the right) and a quick stint of suburbia, you cross a disused railway line (which the Ring will end up joining for most of day 12) and enter Highgate Wood. From here to the end of this leg, it's woodland all the way, and very pleasant it is too.
Highgate Wood is a fairly developed wood, with a park café and toilets, and if you haven't decided to drag along a dog or a small child, you're in the minority. Still, once you've escaped the main highway through the wood, things quieten down, and it's an enjoyable stroll to the B550, where the Ring enters a much wilder wood, Queen's Wood. The path here is much steeper and muddier – which means the wood is free of buggies, bottles and bairns – and the trees are a little more unkempt.
It's a surprise, then, to suddenly reach the end of the day's walk in the middle of a suburban street, a short walk from Highgate station, but that's this day all over: woods, posh suburbs and graffiti, all in one short stretch. It's a fun day, it really is.